Tennessee Titans tight end Delanie Walker (82) is brought down by Indianapolis Colts inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson in the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)
Mark Zaleski
December 31, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Josh Cribbs enjoys sharing NFL stories with his younger Colts' teammates.

This week, the 31-year-old return specialist almost feels like one of them.

For the first time in his 10-year career, Cribbs has spent Week 18 attending meetings, watching film and preparing for the playoffs rather than cleaning out locker and heading home for the offseason. It's an experience that has rendered the usually vivacious veteran virtually speechless.

''When we get in there, I have to hold back my excitement because I'm supposed to have been there and done that,'' Cribbs said. ''But I've not done that. So inside, I'm kind of like a kid on Christmas morning, I'm so excited.''

Of the 53 players on Indy's roster, 17 are expected to make their playoff debuts in Sunday's wild-card game against Cincinnati.

Sure, 13 players have only been in the league since 2013 and a couple of others, such as backup offensive lineman Joe Reitz, have missed out on the postseason fun because of injuries, but Cribbs and starting linebacker D'Qwell Jackson provide prime examples of why this year's pursuit of a Super Bowl cannot be taken for granted.

After eight seasons as teammates in Cleveland, Cribbs and Jackson couldn't believe their luck when they got a chance to play for a contender just a short drive away from the city they'd called home.

''The first thing I said when I came here was that this team smelled like the playoffs,'' Cribbs said with a smile and tone that's as infectious now as it was when he entered the league in 2005. ''It's a treat.''

For those with postseason experience, it's also puts a new twist on Indy's annual postseason trip. The Colts (11-5) have won two straight AFC South titles, been to the playoffs each of the past three seasons and have only missed the playoffs twice since 1999, which is why players such as tight end Dwayne Allen can't even imagine how agonizing the wait must have been for Cribbs and Jackson.

The reaction of Jackson and Cribbs after Indy clinched a playoff spot with a win over Houston three weeks ago - Jackson nearly wore his division champions hat into the shower - and their continued excitement this week has even given some of the playoff regulars a jolt of energy.

''I've been on teams where you look around and all you care about is getting a first-round bye,'' backup quarterback and former Super Bowl starter Matt Hasselbeck said. ''But when you have guys who have never been to the playoffs and you see the joy and the child-like feeling they have for making it, it's so refreshing. It's awesome, you just love it.''

Cribbs acknowledges he doesn't want to ask questions about what to expect, choosing instead to soak it all in.

But his real challenge Sunday might be keeping those emotions in check. When Cribbs made his first trip back to Cleveland in early December, he was critiqued for trying to do too much on his returns.

Former Indy coach Tony Dungy, who won his only Super Bowl title after the 2006 season, often explained to players they didn't need to do anything special in the playoffs where he believed more games were lost than won. Rather, Dungy asked his players to simply sharpen the things they did best so they could execute consistently when the stakes increased.

Those who have experienced success understand Dungy's message, though it doesn't make it any easier to put in place.

''I'm still a newbie at it,'' said safety Mike Adams, who has made the playoffs in three straight years after missing them for eight consecutive seasons in San Francisco and Cleveland. ''Every play is important.''

And in the case of Cribbs and Jackson, every moment will be one worth savoring for a lifetime.

They're just hoping it doesn't take nearly as long to appear in a second playoff game as it did their first. A win over the Bengals (10-5-1) would send the Colts into a divisional-round matchup at either top-seeded New England (12-4) or second-seeded Denver (10-4).

Cribbs can't wait.

''We've already achieved success,'' Cribbs said, noting that the goal is making a Super Bowl run. ''Now, it's about making this next level and reaching for greatness.''

Notes: Colts chief operating officer Pete Ward said about 1,000 tickets were still unsold at midafternoon Wednesday. ... Offensive linemen Hugh Thornton (right shoulder) and A.Q. Shipley (let ankle) did not practice Wednesday. Right tackle Gosder Cherilus (groin), receiver Reggie Wayne (triceps, groin) and outside linebackers Erik Walden (knee) and Bjoern Werner (shoulder) were limited at practice. But Cherilus was later put on injured reserve, ending his season and leaving a big hole on Indy's line. Cribbs sat out to get extra rest, coach Chuck Pagano said.

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